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June 1, 2008 -- El Paso Times (TX)

[Mexico's] Drug War Has Many Players

Violence's Origins Are Extensive

By Daniel Borunda

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Angel Torres, spokesman for Mexico's Procuradura General de la Republica shows a vehicle with bulletproof glass mounted behind the windows. The violence that has plagued Juarez in recent months has many causes.

Reputed Sinaloa drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, accompanied by an army of sicarios (hit men), strolled into Juarez one day claiming the city's lucrative smuggling corridor as his own, so the rumor goes.

Whether true or not, Juarez and other parts of the Mexican state of Chihuahua this year have become ground zero in a battle over drug-trafficking routes that have been under the control of the Carrillo Fuentes drug organization for more than a decade.

The violence, which has included kidnappings, car-to-car shootings on boulevards and victims pelted by machine guns in broad daylight, has left about 400 dead and has Advertisement Juarenses looking over their shoulders as they try to go about their daily lives.

What sparked the bloodshed in Juarez is unclear, but somehow agreements between the Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels apparently crumbled, leading to fighting among smaller organizations, said Mexico experts and U.S. anti-narcotics officials.

It is difficult to gauge the size of each of the drug-trafficking organizations, although it is clear that the estimated $10 billion in drug money and weapons that flows into Mexico from the United States each year supplies traffickers with enough money to corrupt authorities and to buy weapons, equipment and technology.

The animosity between Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa cartel and "La Linea," as the Juarez cartel is also known, is evident as the death toll mounts, including several corpses recently found with threatening notes aimed at Guzman's associates.

"This will happen to those who keep supporting El Chapo. From La Linea and those who follow it," stated a note found next to two men slain last week in the Loma Blanca area outside of Juarez.

The suspected head of the Juarez drug cartel is Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who is believed to have taken control of the organization after the 1997 death of his brother, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who was nicknamed the "Lord of the Skies" because of his use of airplanes to smuggle cocaine.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, 45, was indicted in 2000 by a U.S. federal grand jury on a long list of charges, including 10 counts of murder and the distribution of tons of cocaine and marijuana bound for New York, Chicago and other markets throughout the nation.

A Mexican federal police, or PGR, commander identification card bearing a photo of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes was recovered by the FBI from a West El Paso home in 2000, El Paso Times archives showed.

A high-ranking U.S. anti-narcotics official has said that to survive the recent upheaval, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes allied himself with reputed drug trafficker Heriberto "Lazca" Lazcano, one of three leaders of the Gulf cartel.

Lazcano is believed to be the leader of the Zetas, a group of trained assassins formed years ago by deserters from the Mexican army.

John "Jack" Riley, head of the El Paso division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, confirmed encounters involving Zetas in Juarez and the town of Palomas across from Columbus, N.M. But the squad, he said, is not the threat it is said to be.

Juarez is only one battleground in a war taking place across Mexico as narco-gangs battle each other during an unprecedented crackdown by the military and federal forces.

"You have the president of Mexico (who) is doing something no other president has done before, that I can think of. He has basically declared war on the cartels," said Robert Almonte, executive director of the Texas Narcotics Officers Association.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has sent more than 2,000 soldiers and federal police to Juarez as part of a strategy to take back areas across Mexico besieged by drug violence.

While Calderon has made his intentions clear, so have the cartels.

A hit list naming police officers, similar to the ones found in Juarez, was hung on a banner last week in Chihuahua City, which is also experiencing a rash of gangland-type shootings.

Mexico and anti-narcotics experts said the conflict has three fronts:

- -- Intra-cartel: Internal struggles and the elimination of "traitors" within an organization.

- -- Inter-cartel: Fighting between different organizations.

- -- Government vs. cartels: The military and law enforcement's fight against drug organizations.

The deaths are not limited to drug dealers. Businessmen, lawyers and others have also been killed in mob-style hits carried out by commandos armados, or bands of armed men. In addition, nightclubs, bars and a car lot were recently torched.

"There is a series of vendettas being worked out among the drug lords," Tony Payan, a political science professor and Mexico expert at the University of Texas at El Paso, said recently.

"The different people involved in hits ... (include) people who took money from the drug lords and perhaps some of them who took money in the past and haven't delivered as they promised," Payan said.

The foundation of the current war in Mexico is a drug-trafficking problem, which grew in size, sophistication and ruthlessness over decades, all while being funded by the multibillion-dollar U.S. drug market.

In the 1980s, Mexican drug-smuggling groups began growing as Colombian cocaine traffickers shifted trafficking routes to seaports and clandestine airstrips in Mexico, offering access to the U.S. drug market, according to a history of the DEA by the agency.

By the mid-1990s, the cocaine routes that ran through the Caribbean into Florida, which gave rise to the Miami cocaine cowboys period, shifted to Mexico. The Mexican drug traffickers were paid in cocaine, leading to an explosive growth in profits, power and ability to corrupt police and officials at the highest level of government.

During that time, an unspoken code in Mexico separating police from criminal forces -- in which police would take money to look the other way -- broke down, and many in law enforcement became employees of criminal groups, said Payan, who has studied drug trafficking for years.

"I think (former Mexican presidents, Carlos) Salinas (de Gortari) and (Ernesto) Zedillo allowed this problem to get worse and worse and allowed these cartels to get more sophisticated and powerful over time," Payan said last week at a forum on the violence in Juarez. "The number one problem in Mexico ... is corruption."

Corruption has allowed drug traffickers to elude authorities, and when some cartel leaders have been sent to prison, their stays have been short.

Guzman, reputed to be one of the most powerful of the drug kingpins in Mexico, escaped from a maximum-security prison in Mexico in 2001. Guzman, 54, has also been indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury on charges of cocaine trafficking.

There are separate $5 million rewards for information leading to the capture of both Guzman and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. The men are natives of the eastern Mexican state of Sinaloa, which has been described as the equivalent of Sicily to the Italian Mafia.

"The media portrays these guys in suits and ties like if they are the board of AT&T. They are not," said John "Jack" Riley, the head of the DEA in El Paso, in an interview earlier this year. He was referring to the glamorized images of drug traffickers and gangsters populating television, music and film.

"They are thugs, killers really. They would eat each other if they could make a dollar," Riley said.

U.S. authorities say the recent violence may be an indication that the tide is turning against the cartels.

As an example, the DEA said, cooperation with Mexican authorities is at its best level ever. In the past decade, Mexico has begun extraditing drug cartel leaders to face punishment in the U.S., and authorities feel the violence is a sign of turmoil making the cartels vulnerable. The once-powerful Tijuana drug cartel, hit by high-level busts through out the years, is now said to be in disarray.

At a border governors conference in Mexico City last week, Calderon asked that the U.S. do its part in the fight against organized crime and illegal gun trafficking.

"It is fundamental everyone comprehend that the narco-trafficking problem, which is the origin and the principal cause of the violence on the border, is fundamentally due to one clear fact: The American drug market is the largest market in the world," Calderon said.

"It is a problem whose origin is the American consumer, but there are those who pretend that Mexico should confront and resolve it alone," Calderon said in Spanish. "The battle in Mexico daily costs the lives of Mexican police; nevertheless, the majority of the consumers are Americans."

Times reporter Erica Molina Johnson contributed to this report.

Terms and Players

The Mexican drug-trafficking underworld has its own terminology, leaders and practices. Here is a glimpse:

- -- Juarez drug cartel: Drug-trafficking organization based in Juarez. A few years ago, the U.S. government stopped identifying cartels with names of cities. Also known as Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization.

- -- Cuerno de chivo: "Goat's horn." Nickname for theAK-47 assault rifle because the ammo clip curves like a horn.

- -- Encobijado: A dead body found wrapped in a cobija, or blanket.

- -- Plaza: A territory controlled by a particular drug cartel.

- -- Gatekeeper: Person responsible for controlling drug smuggling across the border.

- -- Piso or toll: Fee charged to smugglers to use a particular smuggling route.

- -- La Linea: Another name for the Juarez drug cartel, includes corrupt police officers protecting drug traffickers.

- -- La Limpia: The cleansing, nickname for the current violence in Juarez, including the cleaning up of traitors.

- -- Vicente Carrillo Fuentes: Reputed leader of the Juarez drug cartel.

- -- "J L": Mysterious top lieutenant in the Juarez drug cartel reputed to be in charge of the state of Chihuahua. Also known as "Ledesma" and "El Dos Letras" (Two Letters).

- -- Pedro Sanchez Arras: Reputed lieutenant in the Juarez drug cartel. Nicknamed "El Tigre" and "El Sol." He is believed to be the highest-ranking cartel leader to be captured by the Mexican army during the recent crackdown.

- -- Joaquin Guzman Loera: Reputed head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, known as El Chapo.

- -- Zetas: Assassins group founded by Mexican army deserters. An enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel.

- -- Gulf cartel: Drug-trafficking organization based in Tamaulipas state and South Texas.

- -- The Federation: An alliance of drug-smuggling groups in various parts of Mexico.

- -- Joint Operation Chihuahua: Current operation by the Mexican army and federal police targeting organized crime in Chihuahua. There is also Joint Operation Chihuahua South in the southern part of the state.

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